Good security programs start with a mindset that it’s not about the tools, it’s what you do with them. Here’s how to get out of a reactive fire-drill mode with vulnerability management.

The basis of a good security program starts with a mindset that it’s not about the tools, it’s what you do with them. This mindset is most evident when critical vulnerabilities are released and everyone scrambles to mitigate exploitation.

Most recently, we saw this following the release of the latest critical Windows vulnerability (CVE-2020-0610 and others), which some folks have nicknamed CurveBall. The vulnerability affects Windows CryptoAPI and how Windows handles Elliptical Curve Ciphers (ECC) as part of this service. Microsoft also released two Remote Code Execution (RCE) bugs that are equally important. 

It’s critical that companies get out of a reactive fire-drill mode and work toward cyber resiliency. Here are five recommendations for getting there.

Develop a VTM Strategy
One of the most important business strategies for a security program should be around vulnerability threat management (VTM). VTM strategies should include effective, timely, and collaborative reporting of actionable metrics. Avoid simple items such as the number of vulnerabilities on Windows systems and focus on meaningful items such as remediation rates of exploitable vulnerabilities on critical systems.

It’s important to keep in mind that VTM is a culture and an operational mindset. An effective VTM program should be implemented in concert with the larger security operations organization to mitigate threats and reduce threat actors’ overall attack landscape. It goes beyond scanning for vulnerabilities and telling IT ops to “not suck at patching.”

I recommend splitting your VTM strategy into two phases: detection and response. Detection aims to ensure effective, risk-based reporting and prioritized vulnerability mitigation by gathering all your data, validating the results, and applying a business risk. Automation can make this process easier. Further, using the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop continually reduces the time it takes to locate and inform IT ops and development teams where corrective action needs to take place.

Response is where the rubber meets the road and where many of us pass on the work to other businesses to assist in applying patches or hardening systems. To that end, ensure the correct solution (mitigation or corrective action) is recommended by the VTM team and that the agreed-upon solution has been tested and won’t break production.

In deploying the solution, it’s critical that IT ops and development get prioritized patching and that we provide as few false positives as possible. Trust is earned through transparency and repetition, but it can be destroyed through bad data in an instant.

Know Your Inventory
Knowing where your assets are and who owns them is the basis of an effective and efficient VTM program. Inventory management is a common struggle, partially because VTM teams use a combination of sources to identify where assets live. There are widely available tools to automate and integrate inventory systems so you can avoid time-consuming inventory pulls or maintaining manual spreadsheets. I also recommend partnering with the leaders across your business lines to ensure that when new systems are spun up, the VTM program is effective.

Implement, Then Continually Improve
Don’t wait for the sky to fall to realize that you needed to practice. Just like any other part of an effective security organization, your VTM program should constantly improve. I’ve been a big fan of OODA loops for years.

They are highly effective when leveraged to continually improve an operational program where every initial Observation exits the loop with an Action to adjust the next Observation. If you’ve seen the same thing twice, you’re failing. Leverage cyclical processes to continually improve VTM operations and continually measure your own effectiveness.

Step Up Your Vendor Management
While we cannot simply run vulnerability scans or penetration tests against our vendors, we can put contractual obligations in place with vendors that have access to our sensitive data to secure it appropriately.

Rights to audit are key in any contract. I see many large financial institutions conducting audits on client programs. It’s a great way to validate how effective a program is, but keep in mind that it’s also very expensive to operationalize.

Finally, don’t be shy in working with your vendors. Build relationships with their security and IT organizations so that when a critical vulnerability is released, you know whom to call, and it’s also not the first time you have spoken.

Build a Professional Network
When I first entered the security field several decades ago, collaboration between security organizations in different companies was taboo. Today, it’s required. This sounds simple but is key: As a CISO or security leader, you must have an external network of peers to collaborate with. We must put egos aside and ask each other simple questions around the common problems we all face.

The release of new security vulnerabilities is only going to continue in the coming weeks and months. The most successful (and secure) companies will be able to look outside their network for actionable information and develop internal strategies to stay ahead of increasing threats.

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Wayne Reynolds is an Advisory CISO for Kudelski Security, where he works with executives and program leaders to help businesses drive security programs to align with the business and maximize proactive threat mitigation to best serve the enterprise as a … View Full Bio

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